Plating Memory, Tasting Grief: Exploring the Gastronomical Politics of Memory in Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021) – Ashmita Biswas


Food plays an important part in the processes of remembering and forgetting, thereby elevating a relatively quotidian task to an important archival process that concretizes identity formation. Food and associated culinary practices can trigger certain acts of remembrance that take up the texture and flavour of the food in question. The article explores the complex convergences of memory and culinary studies through an analysis of Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart (2021). The novel is entirely founded on the dialogue that goes on between the act of consumption of food and memory-making. The article studies how food manipulates the discourses on memory, belonging, nostalgia, and grief as represented in the novel. It will thus highlight Zauner’s work as a memory-narrative that engages in the visceral, metaphorical, and material affect contained within taste memories and the power that it holds in chronicling a life-narrative.

Keywords: Memory, food, identity, remembering, nostalgia


Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021) is a memoir composed by the author as a way to cope with her mother’s untimely demise.  The purpose of the memoir is to re-construct Zauner’s lived memories with her mother as a way of commemorating the special bond that they shared. Interestingly, it is seen that the mother-daughter relationship is complexly entangled with a mutual appreciation for Korean delicacies, thereby bringing food into discourses of memory, belonging, nostalgia, grief, and identity formation. I deliberately use the term ‘re-construct’ instead of construct due to the tenuousness of the entire process. Zauner writes in her memoir: “My mother died on October 18, 2014, a date I’m always forgetting…” (p. 12), yet she is able to describe certain meals she shared with her mother down to the tiniest detail. This ambivalence invokes two important aspects of this paper: the purpose of memoirs and the nature of memory. 

Memoir as a literary genre constitutes the process of archiving personal memories. However, what Zauner has written is a ‘food memoir’ which touches upon the territories of both food and memory, all the while bringing the two together in a palatable discourse. Writing on the convergences of food and memory, Holtzman (2006) purports: “Each half of this relationship – food and memory – is something of a floating signifier” (p. 362). As a signifier, food is “intrinsically multilayered and multidimensional”, and memory involves “everything from monumental public architectures to the nostalgia evoked by a tea-soaked biscuit” (p. 362). This leads me to conclude that the very nature of food allows for a rhizomatic entry point into the nebulous workings of memory and how that in turn informs other narratives.

The article takes a critical look at Zauner’s work as a memory narrative where the evocation of bygone days spent with her deceased mother seems to be of paramount importance. The confluences of meals and memories, recipes and relationships will be examined from the vantage point of both memory and food studies. The article will simultaneously expose how consumption practices become markers of collective social identity, belonging, community building, and constitutes cultural memories, thereby highlighting the role of food in chronicling memory narratives.

Reading Zauner’s Food Memoir as A Memory-Narrative

Food memoirists have found food to be an effective medium of storytelling. The very process of engaging in culinary affairs has implicit within it the unconscious workings of memory which allow an interesting archival and recall process. Food memoirs narrativize the metaphoric, symbolic, and mnemonic significance of food as a potent site of memory construction, and are important in the formulation of transnational and transcultural narratives. Waxman (2008) writes that the “metaphorical associations that link food with love and emotional nourishment” can be often seen in memoirs. As a cultural conduit, narratives on food bring together discourses on cultural identity, collective memories, cross-cultural experiences, and in some cases, intergenerational trauma. Thus, food as a form of “human expression” embodies culture, generates memories, and initiates storytelling (Henderson, 2006). This section of the paper reads Zauner’s work as a memory narrative in which consumptive practices are seen in conjunction with processes of memory archival and recall.

In Zauner’s memoir, the narrative is heavily interspersed with the powerfully evocative chronicling of food in all its stages: as raw materials, in the process of being cooked, displayed as appetizingly tantalizing to the senses, in the process of being consumed, and much later as morsels of memories linking the past to the present. Food becomes the primary and quintessential trigger to Zauner’s memories of her mother to the extent that she even remembers her mother associatively in terms of food: “She smelled like olive oil and citrus” (p. 65). It is only after her mother’s untimely demise that Zauner notes how their complicated relationship had been undergirded by a mutual appreciation for Korean recipes. Now looking back, Zauner realizes the palate of her childhood was dominated by her mother, and she is thankful for it: “My childhood was rich with flavours” (p. 23). Literature on food and memory have always placed singular emphasis on how cooking and eating brings together people, and specially women since the kitchen has usually been their haunting ground (some critic). In a similar vein of thought, Holtzman (2006) avers that food plays a unifying role forging “connections” between mothers and daughters (p. 364) – an idea that predominates the substance of the memoir.

The gastronomical politics of consumption ensures that recipes and relationships (Henderson 2006) and meals and memories (Raviya and Sharma, 2022, p. 41) conflate into a commemorative culinary discourse. Zauner’s memories of enjoying meals with her mother link not only the past and the present but also bring together the living and dead in a spatiotemporal continuum existing in the survivor’s memory. It is seen when in Zauner’s remembrances of her visits to South Korea with her mother where the entire family, most of them deceased at the time the memoir was being written, gathered during meal times: “[My] aunts and mom and grandmother would jabber on in Korean, and I would eat and listen…” (p. 8). Thus, Zauner’s memories traverse not only temporal but spatial confines. Food becomes the context of Zauner’s remembrances as one meal is experienced in reference to previous meals (Douglas, 1975), and every culinary sensory experience brings up associated embodied memories. 

The transoceanic gastronomical route to her mother’s motherland remains active even when her mother is no more. After her mother’s passing, Zauner seeks closure by visiting the Jeju islands in South Korea with her husband where she was supposed to go with her mother as one last mother-daughter trip. In Jeju Islands, Zauner has a taste of her motherland – fresh seafood including ‘nakji bokkeum’, stir-fried octopus and spicy fish stew. Upon seeing an “ajumma” ( trans. old lady) cutting the thick strips of “samgyupsal’, the visual memory of her mother cooking pork belly “ssam” flashed in her mind. As she experiences the “last memories” (p. 206) her mother had wanted to share with her, Zauner memorizes the flavours of her motherland: “The tastes she wanted me to remember. The feelings she wanted me to never forget” (p. 206).

The equational relationship shared by food and memory is incomplete without the politics of forgetting. Following her mother’s death, Zauner is guilt-ridden for “misremembering” (p. 12) the events succeeding her mother’s diagnosis and the long spell of recovery and relapse. What Zauner claims is that she never forgot what her “mother ate” (p. 13), thereby tying together the language of food and memory. Interestingly enough, Zauner’s attempts to learn how to cook Korean food stems from a desire to rekindle the subconscious memories she had made while sharing meals with her mother: “…I’d been trying to reconnect with memories of my mother through food” (p. 205). Food is the love language that cements the mother-daughter relationship and blends into the language of memory with all its metaphorical and symbolic associations, acting as a catalyst for remembrances in her memory narrative.

Gustatory Nostalgia And The Taste Of Memory

Manekar (2002) writes about how gustatory is central to the creation of memory. The engagement of the senses manipulates the way in which memories are encoded and recalled. James Beard’s “taste memories” refer to the ability to savour and remember the particular tastes and sensations of food. Zauner’s tastebuds crave specific tastes that she relished courtesy of her mother. The tastes imprinted in her memories transport her to a past untouched by loss: “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home” (p. 212). Food, memory, and nostalgia are conflated to reveal the nebulousness of each. Specific food items are associated with timestamped memories: knife-cut noodles in chicken broth takes Zauner back to “lunch at Myeongdong Gyoja” where her mother kept “ordering more and more refills of their famously garlic-heavy kimchi” (pp. 212-213). Likewise, black-bean noodles summon “Halmoni slurping jjajangmyeon takeout, huddled around a low table in the living room with the rest of my Korean family” (p. 213). 

Zauner chases her childhood flavours and finds a surrogate mother in the Korean YouTuber Maangchi. Roughly her mother’s age, Maangchi’s channel was filled with instructive cooking videos on Korean recipes that Zauner aspires to learn. Zauner finds her accent “comforting” and her words “reassuring” (p. 163) as every culinary gesture reminded her of her mother working magic in her kitchen: “Memories of my mother emerged as I worked – the way she stood in front of her little red cutting board, the funny intonations of her speech” (Zauner, 2016). For Zauner who finds herself in her mother’s slippers, to be the one to cook is “an absolute role reversal” (p. 98). Letting her “hands and taste buds [take] over from memory” (p. 212), Zauner learns the “unspoken language” of food that “symbolize[s]” their “return” to one another, their “bonding” and their “common ground” (p. 98). 

Jatjuk is a dish that holds a special place in Zauner’s memory. It had been the only recipe that her mother could stomach in her final days. Conquering the recipe was easy enough and as she spooned the soup into her mouth, she could visualize the smooth texture coating her mother’s blistered tongue (p. 191). As nostalgia washes over her, Zauner feels closer not only to her mother, but she feels that she has repossessed the “knowledge” that is her natural “birthright” (p. 191), and thereby feels closer to her culture, her motherland. 

Kimchi is another recipe that strikes the chords of Zauner’s memories. A richly marinated and flavoured preparation, kimchi is central to a Korean’s culinary experience. In her essay ‘Love, Loss, and Kimchi’ (2016), Zauner wrote how kimchi, apart from being an indispensable part of her mother’s diet, defined the contours of their relationship. In her memoir, Zauner pays homage to her mother’s love for kimchi by learning to make it. Zauner’s urge to learn how to make kimchi precedes her inheriting her mother’s kimchi fridge. She recalls how her mother used to prepare her favourite radish kimchi whenever she came home from college. Making kimchi once a month becomes a “therapy” (p. 216) for Zauner as she makes restorative attempts at reviving the tastes that defined her bond with her mother. The kimchi fridge that is passed down to her also becomes a piece of material memory that ties her to her mother and by recreating her mother’s recipes, Zauner relives the memories she has with her mother.

Food, Cultural Memory And Social Identity

Food as a culturally defined material serves both to “solidify group membership and to set groups apart” (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002, p. 109). Counihan (1996) avers that it is a “prism that absorbs and reflects a host cultural phenomenon” (p. 6). It must be understood that Zauner’s mother’s fascination and meticulousness concerning Korean delicacies partly stem from a desire to stay connected to her motherland and thereby cling to her cultural identity. It is just the opposite for Zauner. Throughout her formative and adolescent years, Zauner rebelled against her inherent ‘Koreanness’ by outrightly rejecting Korean food in the presence of her peers. During her school days, she would blatantly refuse to carry Korean preparations by her mother, embarrassed of the effect that such exotic dishes would create. The aroma, the vibrant colours, and the presentation of the meals were unappetizing to Caucasian taste buds. As strong markers of cultural identity, food dominates narratives on space and belonging. For Zauner, to be identified as an Asian was shameful and this was expressed in her public rejection of Korean food. Underplaying the larger socio-cultural significations of Korean food, Zauner chose to order what her friends ordered, a far cry from her intuitive “poetic combination” (p. 93) of raw pepper and ssamjang paste that had impressed her mother.

Smith and Watson (2001) opine how cooking can effectively shape the self and be an active agent of cultural transmission. Recipes, food habits, practices of consumption are all intertwined with culture, ethnicity, and identity. Gilbert (2014) asserts that our “recipes are histories of who we are” and that sometimes we can “revise our lives by adjusting the menu” (p. 02). This is exactly what Zauner does after the passing of her mother. She notes the cultural divide between her Caucasian father and her Korean mother and how she relied on her mother for “access to our Korean heritage” that led her to have a “distinctly Korean appetite” and a reverence for “good food” and a “predisposition to emotional eating” (p. 4). It has been observed how shared memories revolving around recipes evoke “homeland memories” (Parveen, 2016, p. 53). For Zauner, her mother symbolizes home, and mnemonically, food defines her identity: “What I was searching for when I cooked doenjang jjigae and jatjuk on my own [was] the preservation of a culture that once felt so ingrained in me but now felt threatened” (p. 205).

Writing on the nature of selective memories, Parveen (2016) notes how some recipes possess more cultural significance over others. These culturally valued recipes have deep rooted cultural significance that cements the social identity of a community. Culinary practices and diasporic identity overlap with one another to generate “individualized memories” (Parveen, 2016, p. 52). Miyeokguk is a Korean dish that has a ritualistic significance in affirming collective cultural memories. In the context of diaspora, this dish becomes a medium of community bonding whereby the collective memories of the immigrants surrounding the recipe are evoked. In the memoir, Zauner mentions this significance of this dish and how the cultural weight that the recipe carries bring together generations: “On my birthday, we ate miyeokguk – a hearty seaweed soup full of nutrients that women are encouraged to eat postpartum and that Koreans traditionally eat on their birthdays to celebrate their mothers” (p. 4). Miyeokguk is a dish that is not only culturally significant in affirming social identity, but it is also of emotional value given the personal nature of Zauner’s individualized memories. 

Zauner, like her mother, recognizes the cultural memories embedded in native flavours and how that assures them a sense of belonging. Sutton (2001) surmises that it is the satisfaction of belonging to one’s own cultural community that gives rise to a feeling of wholeness. Zauner understands that the responsibility of preserving her Korean legacy lies in her “gut” and her “genes” (p. 224), and so she takes on the mantle of her deceased mother. Meyers (2001) talks about “food heritage” being passed down from mother to daughter. In the wake of her mother’s death, Zauner suffers from an identity crisis since the only person connecting her to her Korean roots is no more. Thus, she thinks to herself: “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” (p. 4). Food is how her mother expressed her love (p. 4), and Zauner is determined to carry on her traditions as a “delicious tribute” to her mother, for the more she learns about her food, her culture and traditions, the closer she feels to her mother (Zauner, 2016), making food a powerful conduit for cultural memories and social identity. 

Conclusion: Remembering in H Mart

H Mart and its diverse assortment of Asian culinary specialties becomes a hub of collective cultural memories that speaks mnemonically to its consumers. For Zauner who made many a trip to H Mart with her mother, the store becomes a reservoir of bittersweet memories. Zauner’s gastronomical journey through H Mart is peppered with episodic interventions of memories of her mother. Ever since her mother died, Zauner finds herself crying in H Mart (p. 3), thereby marking the store as a trigger for her memories. By her own admission, Zauner (2016) writes how she navigated loss and grief through food: “As I struggled to make sense of the loss, my memories often turned to food”, and her return to H Mart feels like a return to her mother, to her community. Benedict Anderson’s (1983) notion of the imagined community is seen at work in sense of solidarity and community feeling in a diasporic context that emerges out of this consumerist capitalistic venture that has come to represent a cultural reserve. 

Food can thus be considered a powerful manipulator of memories. The intricate structuring of memories that entwines itself with the senses shows exactly how strong the connection between food and memory is. This relationship is further complicated when discourses on social identity, collective identity, culture, and ethnicity emerge in the context of diaspora. For immigrants, food becomes a tokenistic representation of culture, and through this mnemonical relationship, memories are constituted in metaphorical terms. In Zauner’s case, food represents her cultural roots and legacy, but simultaneously in her memories, those recipes take on the flavour of daughterhood as memories of togetherness and being pampered by her mother interweave themselves with those culturally valued dishes. The article thus effectively highlights Zauner’s work as a memory-narrative that engages in the visceral, metaphorical, symbolical, and material affect contained within taste memories and the power that it holds in chronicling a life-narrative.

Author Bio

Ashmita Biswas is presently a Research Scholar at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. She completed her graduation and post-graduation from there itself. She has qualified UGC NET, SET and GATE in 2022. She pursued her B. Ed. From St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and has acquired some teaching experience owing to the school internship. Her areas of interest include Queer Studies, Postcolonial Literature, African Literature in English, Indian Writing in English, Digital humanities, Memory studies, Food studies, and Body studies.


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